Beyond a Comet, Pluto Looms
Last week we all marveled at the historic first landing on the surface of a comet as Philae, dispatched from the Rosetta spacecraft, began science operations on a slowly warming comet (before going into indefinite hibernation for lack of sunlight).
Now further excitement awaits for Solar System research: The New Horizons spacecraft, en route to Pluto and its system of moons since 2006, will reach a critical milestone on December 6. On that day the spacecraft, set to be the first to explore the distant planet — or dwarf planet, depending on your belief — will come out of hibernation mode. This marks the first step in setting up for the flyby of Pluto and its moons that will occur on July 14, 2015, giving us our first-ever close-up look at Pluto and its large moon Charon, along with four other small moons — Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx.
Credit: New Horizons Mission
Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for New Horizons, excitedly describes how the spacecraft will soon be “on Pluto’s doorstep.” Pluto lies more than 30 astronomical units (AU) from Earth at present — that’s 30 times the distance between Earth and the Sun, which is some 93 million miles (150 million —> Read More Here